Share This Article
Emily Hewitt-Park talks all things manifesto, taking a deep dive into the genre and its evolution into the present day.
“Every page should explode. Either because of its staggering absurdity, the enthusiasm of its principles, or its typography.”
Tristan Tzara, Manifesti del dadaismo (Dada Manifesto)
Throughout history, conflict and literature have remained inexplicably tethered.
Writing has proven a unique ability to both enkindle and extinguish flames of socio-political havoc, and despite the perceived security and stability of our 21st century milieu, we remain inescapably vulnerable to the ability of literature to dismantle reality.
And this is best proven in the world of manifestos.
Manifestos are primarily designed to ignite action and project a doctrine of ideological values. Although, the unintentional, and perhaps most fascinating, aspect of a manifesto is the way in which it speaks to the universality of humankind in craving, however vast, profound ideological and inaugural change. They prove the most human of any genre through their desire to see beyond the bounds of their status quo in the quest to redefine human existence.
1. A Call to Action
Undoubtedly, at surface value manifestos are declarative texts designed to incite action. This purpose is achieved through a recurring rhetorical pattern: constructing a collective identity, pitting the identity against an antagonistic power and spotlighting action as means of emancipation.
For most people, the first document that comes to mind at the word “manifesto”, is Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s Communist Manifesto (1847), described as “the most widely read political pamphlet in human history”. The Communist Manifesto is indeed the prototype for this model. The very structure of the manifesto rests upon dyadic relationships within society, the chapter titles encompassing groups antithetical in class and credo. Throughout the text, a social dichotomy is emphasised using high modality prose and truncated syntax. “[The Communists] openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions…The Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains”. A rise to action is grounded in the notion that freedom against capitalism transpires only through revolt, through a collective willingness to break free from metaphorical manacles imposed by an “exploiting and ruling class”.
Uniformly, André Breton in the more niche Surrealist Manifesto (1924), references a similar “cage from which release is becoming increasingly difficult”. Though the conflict of his manifesto, crafted amidst the epistemological uncertainty of World War II, polarises schools of thought as opposed to political ideologies, the method of persuasion is analogous. We see a composer constructing for their reader a world beyond the manifesto’s pages where individuals are motivated to reorient themselves within society. “Let yourself be led. Events will not tolerate deferment. You have no name. Everything is inestimably easy”.
Paradoxically however, Breton’s call to action is the encouragement of inaction. He posits us, through inclusive second person, within a mindscape unencumbered by rationale, empowering readers to relinquish “impoverished and sterile” thought processes and in turn dismantle the oppressive backbone of modern society. Once again, an adversary is established and the pathway to self-liberation paved.
In this sense, manifestos purposefully rally audiences to take action in materialising their delineated utopias.
2. A Repository of Values
Through their extrapolation of paradigms and values, manifestos also provide a unique opportunity to immerse within their contextual zeitgeist. In their rendering of ‘utopian’ apotheoses, we can perceive what societies throughout history anticipated for their future, and muse, sometimes humorously, on the accuracy of these prognostications.
The Futurist Manifesto (1909) by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti proselytised new aesthetics that would reform historical narratives and modes of expression, critiquing culture as a “cemetery of historical fossils”. “…Factories suspended from clouds by threads of smoke;…gliding flights of aeroplanes whose propeller resembles the flapping of flags and applause of enthusiastic crowds”. Through this accumulative industrial imagery Marinetti provokes a rupture in Italy’s historical trajectory, consequently revealing a radical contextual favour for machinery, speed and warfare. The manifesto therefore reproduces values of a society chasmed by traditional and technological beauty ideals.
Similarly, Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto (1916) emerged as an absurdist response to World War II’s brutality, unveiling a collective desire to destroy “hoaxes of reason” and discover “unreasoned order” by expunging art and language of its utilitarian purpose. “How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada….How can one get rid of everything moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada.” Ball proposes, through his repeated hypophoras, an appreciation of authenticity in a society disillusioned by unquestioning conformity to nationalist thought. Hence, the Dada Manifesto accentuates the ontological value of individual feeling and creative output in a milieu permeated by nihilism.
Thus, manifestos behave, both directly and implicitly, as repositories of sociocultural values.
3. An Unexpected Source of Introspection
However, above all manifestos are testament to human’s intrinsic propensity to challenge the status quo, and the ongoing ability of literature to act as a panacea for human dissatisfaction.
Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto (1967), frequently regarded as satire, symbolises on a profound level innate determination to rebel against suppressive social echelons. While seemingly absurd, Solanas’ statements build toward a particular motive: shocking men and women alike out of complacency within society’s sexism. “Women, in other words, don’t have penis envy; men have pussy envy”. In spite of its radicality, the manifesto’s obscene qualities are systematically exploited to appeal to emotions, credibility, and logic, revealing disempowerment and injustice toward women. While the text has been criticised for a lack of “eloquence and propriety” in actuality it speaks volumes about the difficulty of ascertaining identity when hindered by social barriers to expression and power. Therefore, Solana symbolises a universal refusal to conform to preconstructed social roles, and a desire to rebel against tenets stifling our potential.
Finally, to circle back to our predecessor, the Communist Manifesto similarly strives to upraise the will of a collective. “…We find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome: patricians…slaves; in the Middle Ages: feudal lords…serfs; in all these classes, again, subordinate gradations”. Through accumulation Marx and Engel highlight an organic codification of society into strict social stratum, but they also underline the fragility of this framework, asserting it can be broken where a collective hunger for change is strong enough. In comparing these works, despite diverging allegories there is a common undercurrent: protestation against social hierarchies. Perhaps Marx and Engel’s conclusion that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” therefore stands; where there is a stratified society, there is an ensuing will for self-determination.
We can see, manifestos demonstrate a discontent with the organisation of a society, and reveal our instinctive human endeavour to retrieve self-expression and independence where they have been overpowered.
The manifesto is a genre of paradox. It is both the oxygen that fuels history’s blaze, and the blanket that smothers its trail. A manifesto’s discourse announces and produces a rupture in history’s continuum, guided by belief in the future and an impossibility to return to the past.
Where we sit amidst the flames, in the transient placidity of the present, we can observe these works from a place of autonomy. While the unequivocal purpose of these texts is to elicit action, whether we choose to ‘do something’ or not is conditional upon our belief in the manifesto’s persuasion.
Contrastingly however, the values and human truths ingrained within manifestos are inescapable. And thus, manifestos do more than elicit action: they possess an underlying didactic purpose educating on a human experience both fractured by differences yet unified by a pursuit to ‘better’ our reality.